Rooms Full Of Books: Soulful Abodes

In Books: A Memoir Larry McMurtry writes:

[I]t puzzles me how bookless our ranch house was. There must have been a Bible, but I don’t remember ever seeing it. My father did read the range cattle books of J. Frank Dobie, but the only one I remember seeing in our house, which, by this time, was a small house in the village of Archer City was The Longhorns, which I borrowed for my father Mr. Will Taylor, a wealthy and elderly oilman who lived in a great mansion just south of our hay field.

I now own Mr. Taylor’s mansion and have filled it with about twenty-eight thousand books, which took a while.

That’s quite a mic drop right there. (The jacket inscription notes that McMurtry “lives in his hometown, Archer City, Texas, where he owns and operates a vast bookstore comprised of nearly 400,000 used, rare, and collectible books.” It also makes note of the fact that McMurtry “is the author of twenty-eight books including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove.”) I remember being awed by the size of Susan Sontag‘s personal library–which ran to some fifteen thousand books; McMurtry’s library runs to almost twice that. This wonderful video shows Umberto Eco walking around his personal library; it is mind boggling. Of course, the number of books means little in terms of erudition if a significant percentage of them remains unread, but these worthies clearly seem to have read a great many of the books they collected. Their collections generate envy and respect in those of us who love books and like having a lot of them around.

My living room and my office are where my books live; they’ve traveled with me to Australia and back; I will take them with me wherever I go, to wherever we next decide to set up home. I did not bring any books with me when I moved to the US some thirty years ago, and I couldn’t have; my collection then, thanks to my budget, was very small, and I relied largely on libraries to keep my reading habit going. At home, they take up eight shelves; in my office, another three. Over the years, many have fallen apart, been lost, or been borrowed never to be returned. (I loathe loaning my books out and hope to never have anyone again ask me to borrow one.) But those that have survived contribute, in no insignificant measure, to making our living-room the ‘soul’ of the house. (As one recent visitor to our humble abode described it–and he was right.) When I sit at my work-desk in one corner, to write, to read, to browse and waste time, and look around on occasion on the books that surround me, at their dimly visible titles which speak to diverse intellectual domains and inclinations and interests, their colorful jackets, their histories of procurement jostling for attention in my memories, I feel a curious, calming, pleasure; I am reminded of the fact that as a child I had often told my mother that I “dream of living in a room full of books”–and that that dream has been realized.

Susan Sontag’s Paragraphed Interview Answers

In his introduction to Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stones Interview, Jonathan Cott writes:

In one of her journal entries from 1965, Susan avowed: To give no interviews until I can sound as clear + authoritative + direct as Lillian Hellman in Paris Review.” ….as I listened to her clear, authoritative, and direct responses to my questions, it was obvious that she had attained the conversational goal that she had set for herself many years before.

Unlike almost any other person whom I’ve ever interviewed…Susan spoke not in sentences but in measured and expansive paragraphs. And what seemed most striking to me was the exactitude and “moral and linguistic fine-tuning”…with which she framed and and elaborated her thoughts, precisely calibrating her intended meanings wit h parenthetical remarks and qualifying words…the munificence and fluency of her conversation manifesting what the French refer to as an ivresse du discours–an inebriation with the spoken word.

I saw Sontag interviewed once, at the 92nd Street YMCA, sometime in 1991 or 1992. Her interviewer was, I think, if memory serves me correctly, the then editor of Vanity Fair Graydon Carter. (The interview was held shortly after the release of her novel The Volcano Lover: A Romance.) My reaction to hearing and seeing her speak–at some length, for the interview was no mere bagatelle–was similar to Cott’s: for years afterwards, whenever I described the interview, I would say, “She doesn’t just speak in complete, well-formed sentences; she speaks in paragraphs.” Sontag clearly had a great deal to call upon and invoke in her answers; her ability to quickly organize her thoughts into the aural form in which she presented them to her listeners was luminously on display.

It was the first time I had seen Sontag speak; I would see her once again, possibly at a book reading of some sort. She signed my copy of AIDS and its Metaphors on that occasion. Then, she did not speak as much so I did not get a chance to revisit my earlier impression of her. But I think it has remained indelible over the years.

I remember one remark in particular, from her 92nd Street Y appearance, one that made me chuckle then, and often still does so: that the right time and place to write an autobiography was after death, from beyond the grave. Everything else was premature, a too-quick reckoning of finality when the possibility for change was still at hand. (Sontag was quite obsessed by reinvention and moving on to newer selves so such a statement should not be too surprising, but it was her manner of framing it that made it distinctive.)

If only she supply us with her authoritative, clear, and direct autobiography now. I bet it’d be an interesting read.

Note: Around that time, as Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign kicked off, a campaign trail reporter for the New York Times made note of how the Arkansas governor was  “that modern rarity, a candidate who spoke in complete sentences.” Clearly, that was a good time for the spoken word.

Susan Sontag on Truth’s ‘Value’

Susan Sontag, in reviewing Simone Weil’s Selected Essays, offers some remarks on the nature and function of truth, and its placement in our schema of intellectual and emotional endeavor. In doing so, she strikes a slightly Nietzschean note:

Perhaps there are certain ages which do not need truth as much as they need a deepening of the sense of reality, a widening of the imagination. I, for one, do not doubt that the sane view of the world is the true one. But is that what is always wanted, truth? The need for truth is not constant; no more than is the need for repose. An idea which is a distortion may have a greater intellectual thrust than the truth; it may better serve the needs of the spirit, which vary. The truth is balance, but the opposite of truth, which is unbalance, may not be a lie.

So, the ‘sane’ is the true, but it is not always the most desirable. Truth–as the remark for the ‘need for repose’ indicates–may only represent a kind of quiescence, an accepting of the world as is, an illusory freezing of its vitality. Other kinds of ‘ideas’, which may shatter this calm, disturb this peace, distort the placidity and stillness, may do more, may ‘serve’ us better; they may provoke us and move us to further inquiry, to further activity, to a continuation of our physical and spiritual quests. Later, we learn ‘the truth is balance’, an imagery that confirms the impressions we have been led to form of it: an equilibrium of sorts, a compromise, an arbitration of compelling impulses. Truth is moderation; not always desirable.

And then,:

In the respect we pay to such lives [as Simone Weil’s], we acknowledge the presence of mystery in the world—and mystery is just what the secure possession of the truth, an objective truth, denies. In this sense, all truth is superficial; and some (but not all) distortions of the truth, some (but not all) insanity, some (but not all) unhealthiness, some (but not all) denials of life are truth-giving, sanity-producing, health-creating, and life-enhancing.

Here the ‘possession of truth’ entails a denial of ‘mystery’; given truth’s metaphysical standing these may be the most primeval puzzles of all. And taking on board of the truth is ultimately ‘superficial’, the denial of the mystery, the acceptance of the surface baldness of the true statement, the refusal to look further, the happy satisfaction with the bare presentation of the world.

So, truth, in these depictions, becomes a life-denying force. It speaks of the cessation of motion, of resting; the peace it offers is that of the endless repose in the grave. Truth becomes a paralytic dogma; it is literally, the end of inquiry. It thus generates an irony about itself: its pursuit might be life-giving but its gaining might not be.

These remarks’ Nietzschean flavor should be clear, for in them Sontag is doing no more and no less than struggling to find a more appropriate–and perhaps less exalted–placement for truth in our ‘table of values.’

The Twenties: A Rush to Judgment Would Be Premature

In ‘Semi-Charmed Life: The Twentysomethings Are Allright’, (The New Yorker, January 14 2013) Nathan Heller writes:

Recently, many books have been written about the state of people in their twenties….Few decades of experience command such dazzled interest (the teen-age years are usually written up in a spirit of damage control; the literature of fiftysomethings is a grim conspectus of temperate gatherings and winded adultery), and yet few comprise such varied kinds of life. Twentysomethings spend their days rearing children, living hand to mouth in Asia, and working sixty-hour weeks on Wall Street. They are moved by dreams of adult happiness, but the form of those dreams is as serendipitous as ripples in a dune of sand. Maybe your life gained its focus in college. Maybe a Wisconsin factory is where the route took shape. Or maybe your idea of adulthood got its polish on a feckless trip to Iceland. Where you start out—rich or poor, rustic or urbane—won’t determine where you end up, perhaps, but it will determine how you get there. The twenties are when we turn what Frank O’Hara called “sharp corners.”

A few months after I turned twenty, I left India and moved to the US for graduate school. Three years later, armed with a graduate degree in computer science, I began my first serious nine-to-five job. My place of employment was glamorous; my work was not. I grew bored and despondent; I wanted out. I left for graduate school again, changing majors from computer science to philosophy. I began my doctoral program at the age of twenty-six, and when my thirtieth birthday rolled around, I was in that curious no-man’s land that is situated between the written qualifiers and the oral examination. Thus ended my twenties.

So, one transcontinental move, one graduate degree, one full-time job, sixty credits of doctoral coursework. That’s one way of jotting up the twenties’ achievements. Or I could list travel: a few trips back to India, some brief visits to Europe. Perhaps girlfriends? That’d be too crass. Perhaps I could list some losses, but those would be too painful to recount here. Or I could talk about lessons learned, but to be painfully honest, I would have to talk about lessons that I started to learn in the twenties; I don’t think I’m done learning them. There was a journey in there somewhere, of course. I started my twenties in a place called ‘home’, left it, and ended them in a city I had started to call home; I started them with imagined focus, and ended them with no illusions of any.

It’s hard to know how to assess a decade, how to rank it among the decades that make up one’s life. Were the twenties more important, more formative, than the thirties or the still-ticking forties? Dunno. I don’t quite know how I could make that determination now. Susan Sontag once said the best way to write an autobiography was when life was complete, from beyond the grave. I doubt I’ll be able to pull that off, but at the very least, I’m going to resist the temptation to make any hasty judgments about the formativeness of a particular time-span.  Especially as I’m not done becoming just quite yet.

Re-Reading What One Has Read

A few days ago, I wrote a post on reading (and re-reading) what one writes. Today, I want to put down a few thoughts on the business of re-reading what one has read, sometimes willingly, sometimes not.

Susan Sontag once said, ‘All great books deserve to be read five times at least.’ When asked if she did so often, she replied in the affirmative. (I dimly remember her saying this during a 1992 interview at the 92nd Street Y.) I have never read a book five times–unless you count comic books like the Tintin series, which I’ve re-read dozens of times–but Sontag’s remarks still make acute sense. The most perspicuous definition of a classic book is one that endures, that is read and read again by successive generations, by a diversity of readers. We embody those diversities and temporal passages in our personalities and histories; what better way to enjoy the true worth of a classic than to expose our different selves, changes wrought in them by our unique experiences, to its endlessly multiplied offerings?  It seems staggeringly obvious to me, as it has to many others, that Anna Karenina will be read differently once its reader has actually suffered an acute heartbreak or two, or lived through a slowly disintegrating relationship.

So this sort of re-reading is an acknowledgement of the dynamic relationship between writer and reader, and of the creative nature of reading itself, informed by the particular background that he or she brings to the text. There is another, more mundane, and possibly more infuriating kind of re-reading: when one forgets that a book on our shelves has already been read by us, or even when in returning to a book we are currently reading, we resume at the wrong point and realize that the pages we are staring at are ones that we have read before.

The former might occur to any reader with a sufficiently large library of suitable vintage. We scan through its shelves hunting down the unread, and sometimes forget that our catch is one that we had seized upon and read before. Sometimes we find out quickly as we enter its pages; sometimes revelation arrives late.  I do not think the author should feel insulted that his work had failed to be memorable; our memories are strange things and we still have little idea of what makes some of its inhabitants long-term residents and others merely transitory visitors. Instead, he should hope that I find the revisitation sufficiently invigorating to continue. After all, doesn’t every writer want to be read and read again?

Moving on to the latter kind of re-reading. Resuming a book I’m currently reading, at the wrong point, is a common affliction for me. I do not use bookmarks–for some reason, I absolutely disdain them–and I often forget the page number where I had halted. I try to locate the point of departure but that quest often goes wrong, and so I plunge in with a guess. And sometimes, a page or so later, I come upon a passage that tells me I have been this way before. I find this experience curiously shaming sometimes: Was I not paying attention the last time I was reading these pages?  But here again there is reassurance for both reader and writer: I get a second chance to put things right and pay heed to the writer’s efforts and the writer gets another opportunity to keep me hooked till the end. Oh, and yes, the writer gets read again.

Arendt and Sontag on Conservatism, Romanticism, and ‘Interesting’ Politics

Last week at Brooklyn College, the Wolfe Institute‘s Spring 2012 Faculty Study Group met to discuss Corey Robin‘s The Reactionary Mind, which aims to identify substantive theses central to that political tradition by way of an intellectual history of conservatism; more precisely, by close readings of some central works of the conservative canon. (The Faculty Study Group is organized by the Wolfe Institute every semester to read and discuss an academic work of interest; this semester’s selection of The Reactionary Mind had already generated some pre-discussion controversy.)

Our meeting last week was considerably enhanced by Corey Robin himself,  who joined our discussions of Chapters 6, 7, 8. I expected the discussion to not be restricted to these chapters, of course, and I was not disappointed. Over the course of our two-hour interaction, we were able to get Corey to describe the book’s central thesis–that conservatism is reactionary, counter-revolutionary politics, infused with romantic sentiment, responding vigorously to perceived threats –, clarify some theoretical points, and consider possible sharpenings and applications of his thesis. (One extension of great interest to me is to apply Corey’s central claims to conservatism beyond American and European shores.)

One of the most interesting clarifications of Robin’s thesis was the centrality of the romantic impulse in conservatism. Indeed, it seemed, after our discussions, that the romantic impulse is perhaps even more central than the reactionary, counter-revolutionary component of conservatism; it certainly explains conservative fascination with war, the attraction it presents to ‘outsiders,’ its glorification of strength and individual striving. (I intend to write a post very soon that explores the connection between the sentiments of the immigrant and the romantic imagination.)

There are some interesting theoretical resonances of this association of conservatism with romanticism.

First, here is Hannah Arendt (again!) in On Revolution, Penguin, 1990, page 197:

However that may be, the reason why the men of the revolutions turned to antiquity for inspiration and guidance was most emphatically not a romantic yearning for past and tradition. Romantic conservatism – and which conservatism worth its salt has not been romantic? – was a consequence of the revolutions, more specifically of the failure of revolution in Europe; and this conservatism turned to the Middles Ages, not to antiquity; it glorified those centuries when the secular realm of worldly politics received its light from the splendour of the Church, that is, when the public realm lived from borrowed light. The men of the revolutions prided themselves on their ‘enlightenment’, on their intellectual freedom from tradition, and since they had not yet discovered the spiritual perplexities of this situation, they were still untainted by the sentimentalities about the past and traditions in general which were to become so characteristic for the intellectual climate of the early nineteenth century.[emphasis added]

Then, here is Susan Sontag, in ‘An Argument About Beauty’, (from At The Same Time: Essays and Speeches, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2007, page 9), where, after considering that works of art might be described as ‘interesting’ as opposed to ‘beautiful’ in an attempt to make them ‘more inclusive’:

What is interesting? Mostly, what has not previously been thought beautiful (or good). The sick are interesting, as Nietzsche points out. The wicked too. To name something as interesting implies challenging old orders of praise; such judgments aspire to be found insolent or at least ingenious. Connoisseurs of ‘the interesting’–whose antonym is ‘the boring’–appreciate clash, not harmony. Liberalism is boring, declares Carl Schmitt in The Concept of the Political written in 1932. (The following year he joined the Nazi Party.) A politics conducted according to liberal principles lacks drama, flavor, conflict, while strong autocratic politics–and war–are interesting. [links added]